A doyen of the feminist movement in Maharashtra, Vidya Bal passed away at the age of 84.
Vidya Bal passed away at the age of 84. A doyen of the feminist movement in Maharashtra, Vidya Bal was known in most of the middle-class households. Some held her in high esteem, while many dubbed her and the feminist movement as trouble makers for the family institution. Born, brought up and married into a ‘mainstream’ Brahman family with a clear tilt towards Hindutva politics, Vidya Bal’s life journey symbolized the change that modernity, rationality, scientific outlook, and constitutional values could bring about in our society. Naturally, she has been an inspiration and support to hundreds of women and men, who strived to live their life on their terms. She also became a co-traveller of many change-makers in the state, who have been working on several issues in urban, rural, and tribal areas.
The foremost contributions of Vidya Bal in the feminist movement in Maharashtra are twofold. One, she – like most of the social reformers – ignited the conscience for freedom of choice in the minds of young educated women and men. At a time when middle-class families were proud of sending their daughters to schools and colleges, with some of them even ‘allowing’ their daughters as well as daughters-in-law to work outside the household, Vidya Bal caused great discomfort to most of them. They were – and many of them still are – oblivious to a difference in terms of freedom to women as ‘given’ or ‘allowed,’ and freedom of choice for women as a natural process in the family. She taught educated youth that freedom was a means to achieve gender equality. It resulted in crippling the set limits of freedom in a family. The institution of family, amongst the middle-class Indians, has yet to resolve the issues of boundaries, freedom, and choice in the household. But Vidya Bal and her ilk had set the ball rolling in the minds of many that challenged the existing dogmas. Her work flourished when the feminist movement was more focused on creating space for women in a family and ensuring their freedom. Today, the discourse in society concerning women’s rights has shifted towards representation in the public sphere and safety. It is inevitable as more and more women are willing to come out of the walls of the households to give justice to their talents and skills. But Vidya Bal remained conscious of the fact that women in underprivileged and poor households have a great battle in front of them and always felt duty-bound to ensure that the feminist movement reached out to them.
Extremely conscious of the reality around her, of late, Vidya Bal was concerned about growing conservatism amongst the youth of this generation. She regretted that youth, particularly young women, are unable to develop a modern outlook but are content with the fruits of modernization and westernization. Once, she was no different than most in the current generation. What changed her for the better was the ability to see good and bad in different ideas on the scale of dignity and freedom. Coming from a Hindutva background and asked by Rambhau Mhalagi – a stalwart leader of Jan Sangh – Vidya Bal contested the Municipal Council election in Pune in 1974. The next year was declared by the United Nations as the ‘International Year of Women.’ Confronted with a choice of a bright career in conservative ideology and uncertainty about her personal life in championing a progressive legacy, Vidya Bal made a rational choice.
Vidya Bal was an editor and an activist. She refused the labels of writer and thinker even though she wrote consistently and compelled many to think. She filled a vacuum in the Marathi progressive movement with the publication of a magazine called Milun Saryaajanee (which could be loosely translated as women working together). It instantly became the mouthpiece of the feminist movement in Maharashtra and remains so today in the 28th year of its publication. Indeed, it was ironic that the state with a legacy of Tarabai Shinde and Savitribai Phule had no regular publication to voice women’s issues and guide the feminist movement. She also kept alive the otherwise dying concept of Study Groups and insisted on the activists in the women’s movement to get acquainted with all the major developments in the world in order to develop a wider perspective. Her own journey was all about developing perspectives and challenging gender dogmas.
Vidya Bal rose to fame as an editor of the Kirloskar group’s famous magazine Stree, wherein she came to know about several issues concerning women in society and family. She provided a new dynamism to the magazine, as newer ideological dimensions opened up before her. It was the influence of Gopal Ganesh Agarakar, the 19th-century rationalist, that helped Vidya Bal in transforming her outlook and grasping the issues confronted by women in a progressive fashion. Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule’s work inspired her to carry forward the unfinished task of women’s liberation. In the process, she influenced her generation and will certainly be an inspiration for future generations to come.
Parimal Maya Sudhakar
31 Jan 2020